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A Case Study: Kendrick Lamar's 'To pImp a Butterfly'

Published on 4th May 2018

                       According to Pennycook (2007) the hip-hop ideology of authenticity, “of keepin it real, presents a particular challenge for any understanding of global spread. This take on the real is often derided as an obsession with a particular story about violence, drugs, and life in the hood, or with a belief that there is something essentially authentic in the description of brutal lifestyles” (p. 103). Understanding that keepin it real represents the quest for art, politics, representation, performance and individual accountability that reflects all aspects of youth experience. Pennycook (2007) went on to further explain that discussion of real talk (103), captures the ways in which it is creative, expressing yourself freely, speaking the truth as you see and understand it. Thus far Hip-hop has been one of the most influential music genre in storytelling and speaking on the struggles that African Americans face, and according to Rehn & Skold (2005), “Rap has always dealt with storytelling, and one could well say that rap is storytelling” (p. 19), Often these stories have featured the hardships and the struggles involved in coping with everyday life in the hood: with, and against, drugs, violence, poverty, and oppressive establishment, of man-woman relationships and the like.

                  According to Simon black (2014), Hip-hop is arguably the most influential cultural movement to have emerged in late-twentieth-century America. From its beginnings in the South Bronx, hip-hop has grown into a global phenomenon, reaching beyond its musical foundations to touch the fields of design, aesthetics, fashion, politics and education (p. 700). The use of urban spaces is also used by artists to replicate experiences of the urban lives of African Americans (Black, 2014, p. 701), hip hop replicates and re imagines the way African Americans are been treated in their society and that is expressed through the use of urban spaces in cities either by singing about the city directly or shoot the music video in relation with their storytelling. Many blogs and hip hop critics like Rap genius, Complex, and Sway, have been questioning the present state of hip hop and the messages hip hop artists send across, because of the decline in meaningful lyrics and artists who are actually concerned and make songs about the struggles African Americans face in their respective societies. And from observation, till this present day, when authors talk about what hip hop is and who represents what it stands for in relation to authenticity and its significance and through the course of researching in the various articles and journals used in this paper, the authors mostly mentioned; Tupac, N.W.A, 2 Live Crew, Rappers Delight, public Enemy, Jay Z, Nas and others. But the most important and obvious exceptions were the new school hip hop artists, they weren’t really recognized by the authors as still being authentic in the hip hop game except from the mention of just Kendrick Lamar and how he makes reference to 80’s and 90’s hip hop and storytelling in his music. Hip- Hop history is rooted in social activism and according to Porfilio et al. (2014), there are no shortage of the links between oppressive living conditions, police brutality, issues in urban education and a desire to revolutionize the dominant power structure in order to transform the social positions available to communities of color in the United States (p. 45). This paper would focus on the use of Kendrick Lamar and his most recent album, “To Pimp A Butterfly” as a case study analyzing “Alright”, “King Kunta”, “The blacker the Berry” & Mortal man. And how he confirms with the Hip-hop ideology of authenticity in being a political activists and the use of urban spaces and ascribing meaning to it through his music.

                     For years now hip hop has been used to send messages and be a voice for many young people in inner cities, and using rap music was a vehicle to fund and send the message to people. And on behalf of the African Americans, hip-hop has spoken for the marginalized, the poor, and the downtrodden and also increases social consciousness about personal, race and economic issues facing the black community (Hodge, 2013, p.97). Hip hop is best defined in relations to the founding fathers known as; Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, according to Forman & Neal (2004), they defined hip hop as “not a record, a concert, a style of dress or a slang phrase. It is the constancy of their lives. It defines their past and affects their view of the future” (p. 45), it was a representation of who they are and a reflection of their lives. Rap music stated in previous points above is the primary vehicle to deliver what and how we feel to the black youths, during an interview in Forman and Neon’s journal, and Bambaataa described the message hip hop delivers “has taken a lot of brothers and sisters who might be doing negative things and have gotten into the rap world to see other people’s way of life. Hip-hop has also had a force to unite people together. You have all people of color trying to understand what’s happening with the Black problem. Some are getting educated about negative and positive things” (p. 55), it creates opportunities for people to learn about the black culture from both positive and negative sides.

                 And in regards with authentic hip-hop, according to Forman & Neon (2004), Authentic hip-hop was referred to as more gangsta, more ghetto, more hardcore than. “In other words, one hood was deemed more authentically hip-hop, and by extension, more authentically black, than that the core of the East Coast versus West Coast conflict was a fundamental belief that the experiences of those on one coast marked them as more authentic” (58), it is mainly about experience and who can tell the story of the issues they have faced that other African Americans face. To support their claim on authentic hip hop, Forman & Neon gave examples of old hip hop artists and their songs which has been influential in speaking in behalf of the black community; by the most influential and important rap song to emerge in rap’s early history, “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. “This song painted of inner-city life for black Americans the hues of dark social misery and stains of profound urban catastrophe screeched against the canvas of most suburban sensibilities” (p. 61). The Message, along with “Flash’s “New York, New York,” pioneered the social awakening of rap into a form combining social protest, musical creation, and cultural expression” (61). And until recently, Kendrick Lamar has been also acknowledged for being politically active through his songs and performances. And after the release of his 7th studio album, which tells his story as an African American and the struggles he faces, and even the state of California named and presented to him an award for being a Generational Icon, stating that “He is demonstrating the best of what it means to work hard, do well and give back to his community," the senator said. "His story is indeed a uniquely California one and a story that should encourage others to accomplish their goals and give back to their community." (rolling stone march 2015).

             Rapper Kendrick Lamar broke out to a mass audience after releasing a series of free mixtapes of his material online. His fourth mixtape and first that got the public’s attention is his, 2010 Overly Dedicated, landed on the Billboard charts and helped the artist gain a spot on the XXL'S annual freshmen class listing and rap cover in 2011. With support from established rappers including Snoop Dogg who handed him the king of rap title, Game, and Dr Dre, who signed the younger man to his Aftermath record label to release his 2012 proper debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born on June 17, 1987, in Compton, developed a childhood love of hip-hop music, particularly that of fellow California artist Tupac Shakur. In 2012, Lamar at last released his official debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, on Dre's Aftermath label. Recorded with high-profile producers such as Dre and Pharrell Williams, the album focused on Lamar's experiences growing up in Compton and featured singles including “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Poetic Justice.” Critics immediately hailed the album as a classic and the same for his most recent album “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Rolling stone reviewer Jody Rosen applauded Lamar as an unexpected hip-hop voice, “a storyteller, setting spiritual yearnings and moral dilemmas against a backdrop of gang violence and police brutality.”

             Kendrick Lamar is a representation of the idea of an authentic hip hop artist, because he represents Forman & Neon’s (2004) claim that “authentic hip hop expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community” (p. 68). And also personal struggles within and Kendrick did that by telling a continuous story in his “To Pimp A Butterfly” album released on the 15th of March 2015. About the black community and his own thoughts and struggle as an African American male. To pimp a butterfly is an acronym for his rap idol Tupac as the original idea of the name of the album was “Tu Pimp A Caterpillar”.

                 The first example this paper will study is Kendrick Lamar’s song titled “Alright” off his most recent album To Pimp A Butterfly.  “Alright” provides a moment of hope in the middle of To Pimp a Butterfly’s battling journey to find a higher purpose. “Alright” is a response to his other track “U”, where Kendrick talks about his psychological and emotional burdens detailing how Kendrick means to escape from these troubles. In trusting that it’s all a part of God’s plan for him and that he is able to look past his failures and struggles and everything will turn out fine, that is why in the chorus and towards the end of the song he keeps singing “we gon be alright”. The underlying message is driven by specific pain and struggle. Following the release of his To Pimp a Butterfly, he released the video for “Alright”. The video came up in time just as we witness the recent awareness that police brutality against black bodies is multiplying, which sparks a question and makes us wonder if there is any progress towards racial equality. Instead of creating fear, or making music directed towards the police like N.W.A did with “Fuck the Police”, “Alright” provides assurance for black people saying no matter the hardship we face, “we gon’ be alright.” Song and video made a strong impact in the 2015 summer of protest, as Black Lives Matter activists all over America chanted “we gon’ be alright” to mourn together the countless black people killed by police this year and provide a sense of hope for a peaceful future. It was chanted as a form of peaceful protest speaking the lyrics of Kendrick as a way to uphold and unite the black community. He went ahead to perform it at the 2015 BET awards, on top of a police car, further suggesting the song’s role in protest against police brutality. The powerful and memorable imagery and anti-police lyric caused some news outlet to criticise Kendrick. Like when Fox News Geraldo Rivera said: “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” And in response to the critiques the got he replied that “the senseless acts of killings of these young boys out there…this is reality, this is my world, this is what I talk about in my music. You can’t delude that. Me being on a cop car, that’s a performance piece after these senseless acts…Hip-hop is not the problem. Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves.”

            His other track off the album that confirms the ideology is “King Kunta” is a reference to a slave Kunta Kunte based off of the main character in the slave movie Roots. The song explains how the blacks have always been called or referred to over the years either called by a white man as a Nigga or slave and in that negative light he sings that instead of getting angry being labeled, African Americans can take that negativity and use it to their own advantage and ignore whatever anyone says and hope for a better future. The video was shot at Compton, home to N.W.A, Tupac and many old school rappers. Compton used in this video showed what real ghetto looked like and what it meant for him growing up in that area , as the movement of the camera takes many close ups of the streets, open playgrounds and houses. He used Compton as a reminder of where he came for and what it means to be black and proud.

          The next track analysis is “The Blacker The Berry”, this song changed the way the rest of the album was presented, and this is the most outspoken, aggressive song on the album. The song is unfiltered, and the lyrics are very blunt, Kendrick talks about the oppression of the black communities around the world. He raps about how the blacks are viewed, treated and stereotyped. Also how equality has not been coming around even though people talk about it. The title of the song itself was based of from The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro life by Wallace Thurman, which was about exploration of colourism and racial discrimination within the black communities and outside where lighter skin tone was more favored. In between the first verse Kendrick raps about a few stereotypes why whites hate blacks “Pardon my residence, Came from the bottom of mankind, my hair is nappy, my nose is round and wide, you hate me don't you?”  He also goes on to talk about racial oppression You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture, You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey, You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me, And this is more than confession” Monkey is in reference to a racial slur that says Africans are from the jungle. And Kendrick says he is proud to be a monkey. The hook song gives a general idea of what the song is about as he raps “I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black, Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black, And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black, Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks, How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back, But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block, All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black, Remember this, every race start from the block, just remember that” the hook goes on to speak about a little history of the Blacks. And how what they were is still the same way they are referred to today, treating them like slaves, physical abuse being changed and mentally abused. And how in today’s world even though history has been long gone they are still seen in the same light as they were during the slave era. In an Mtv interview Kendrick stated “The Blacker The Berry track. What he said here applies to a whole community, a whole race of people. And he says the hate of the Blacks have been there for generations. Now they don’t even hate for a reason. They just hate for the sake of hating, because their parents and grandparents hated the ‘Blacks’. Bringing down a race or culture is called genocide. And Kendrick says this oppression of the African Americans is nothing less than genocide, and it’s pointless hate. The oppressions, genocides and murders of the African Americans have been given little to no justice by the authorities.”

              The final song this paper is analyzing to confirm the hip hop ideology that how he confirms with the Hip-hop ideology of authenticity in being a political activists and the use of urban spaces and ascribing meaning to it through his music, is Mortal Man. This is the final song on the album, the 12 minutes and 7seconds song, is connected to the whole 16 songs in total on the album. The song starts of with a poem that goes on every track in bits and gives the full poem. After the narration of the poem, the song transitions into Kendrick having a conversation with Tupac about what he means by speaking for about and for the black community, and Tupac’s voice echoed explaining “The ground is gonna open up and swallow the evil. That’s how I see it, my word is bond. I see and the ground is the symbol for the poor people, the poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people. Cause the rich people gonna be so fat, they gonna be so appetizing, you know what I’m saying, wealthy, appetizing. The poor gonna be so poor and hungry, you know what I’m saying it’s gonna be like… there might be some cannibalism out this mutha, they might eat the rich.”  So essentially the rich are the ‘evil’. The rich have been feeding off of the poor for so long and the poor are getting poorer and hungrier and one day the tables will turn or a shift will happen. And as the conversation goes on Kendrick keeps asking Tupac a way to lead the black community and give them hope and thoughts of the generation and fighting for what is right. This is a very powerful outro to the album, as he sees himself as an offspring of Tupac’s legacy, not just as a rapper but an activist for the black community and at the end of this racial war going on and lives being lost, according to Tupac “we are really not rapping at the end of the day, our dead homies tell the stories for us”, even with the fights and the struggle for equality and racial discrimination people loose their lives fighting and end up being a story for future generations to learn from.

                 The songs analyzed in conjunction with what Rehn & Skold (2005) believed in that “Hip-hop has been one of the most influential music genre in storytelling and speaking on the struggles that African Americans face” (p. 19), and also confirms the hip hop ideology the paper is based on that Kendrick is presented as an authentic artist in being a political activists and the use of urban spaces and ascribing meaning to it through his music to give hope and be a voice of protest for this generation of African Americans.

            In conclusion, besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, according to Forman & Neal, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously; and for its productive and healthy moments (p. 68) it should be promoted as a worthy form of authentic artistic expression and cultural projection and an enabling source of black juvenile and communal solidarity.


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